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Opening a Door for the Mentally Ill

By David Betancourt
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 27, 2008

A building on 16th Street NW gets its name from the red brick townhouse's dark green front door. Every day, up to 80 people with mental illnesses walk into the Green Door Clubhouse for vocational rehabilitation training.

The nonprofit organization was founded in 1976 by Ellen McPeake and Gail Marker in the basement of All Souls Church, also on 16th Street. It moved to the townhouse a year later and has become a haven for people with mental illness, providing them with understanding and guidance.

Green Door's mission is to prepare clients to live independently by helping them get jobs, said Ashawnda Fleming, director of development.

But many steps lie between the students and that goal. Green Door staff members show their support by attending school orientations with those who are still studying, and keeping track of their academic attendance. Monthly celebrations for those who continue their education or who are doing well at their jobs aim to inspire continued success.

In addition to 175 employees, Green Door depends on the people it serves to make the operation function, whether they are answering phones or preparing food.

Pat serves coffee and operates the register in the cafe. Annette writes articles for the Green Door newsletter, which Jane edits. Other clients assist with accounting, tracking attendance, tutoring and delivering mail.

About 200 people are on the client list at any given time, Green Door administrators say. They estimate that the program serves more than 1,100 D.C. residents a year.

Many success stories can be found behind the door, they say.

Gary, 21, never went anywhere without headphones, to "keep the voices out of my head." (The last names of clients are being withheld for reasons of privacy.) Gary, who is schizophrenic, sought help at the Green Door. Staff members noticed him walking around with his headphones and counseled him on how to end his dependency on them. Gary was able to speak with others who had similar experiences.

Eventually, he found temporary employment as an administrative assistant at Northrop Grumman and was asked to stay on permanently.

For years, Jeff, 42, had spent holidays battling depression. But this holiday season, after seven months at the Green Door, he said, he has a new outlook. He attributes it to his involvement at the facility, helping out wherever he's needed.

"I'm feeling okay," he said. "The things I've accomplished while I'm here, I think have helped me feel a lot better."

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